The inhabitants of Walden Breezes are departing, one by one, their exits attended by artless ceremony. When a trailer is hauled away, revealing a rectangle of dead leaves, the remaining residents gather to stare as if at a patch of eternity. A moment of silence, and then Flora Haskett arrives with her rake.
"They don't bring in anybody to clean up the empty spots anymore," says Haskett, 72, a retired practical nurse. She has lived at Walden Breezes for the past quarter-century, a hundred yards downwind of Henry David Thoreau's famous pond. "That's why I cleaned up that spot there, this one across the way, and that one over there. I help any way I can."
She has tidied up after three farewells in the past six months. Her rake is poised for the departure of a fourth trailer, recently abandoned and awaiting the final tow.
The occupant, a widower in his eighties, was borne away one afternoon in his pajamas. He was fairly typical of Walden Breezes, where no one can move in, and moving out is forever. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which owns the trailer park, runs it according to "the attrition plan."
In the end there will be no trailers, no inhabitants, no exits. The laundry shack will be knocked apart, the stretch of asphalt broken up. The neighboring Concord town dump will be rendered a green hill. And then the breezes will be as sweet as they were when Thoreau walked these woods.
He wrote in his journal in 1841: "I want to go soon and live by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what will I do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?"
It was largely to honor its native son that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts bought the privately owned trailer park in 1976 and closed it forever to newcomers. Only a two-lane blacktop separates it from the banks of the pond where -- from July 4, 1845, to Sept. 6, 1847, in a cabin built from local pine -- Thoreau endeavored "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life."
"If Thoreau was alive today," ventures one resident, "he'd be living in a trailer."
"It's a paradigm of American culture," says James Gutensohn, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management. "It's ticky-tacky right next to something of profound natural beauty and historical significance."
The environmental managers hope to distill Walden Breezes to its Thoreauvian essence with a bulldozer. Eventually the five acres will become part of the Walden Pond state reservation, a gift from Ralph Waldo Emerson's heirs, among others. For now, though, the managers must wait. A condition of the 1976 sale granted each trailer-dweller lifetime tenancy.
"I did not want to see them thrown out on the street," says the erstwhile landlord, James Sliman. "They were old people."
He bought the property when he left the Army at the end of World War II, and lived there for three decades before selling it to the commonwealth. When he retired to Florida nine years ago, Walden Breezes was a community of more than 60 trailers, enlivened by visiting "travel trailers" and the promise of life on the open road.
Today there are 30 trailers going nowhere, not counting the outbound empty one.
"They're like the leaves on the trees," says Sliman, 67, rasping into the phone from his sickbed in Miami. "Falling, falling, little by little."
"Everything," says Gilbert Bliss, state director of forests and parks, "seems to be going along very nicely."
Walden Breezes hovers at the brink of Route 126 like an aqua apparition -- pale Landolas, ghostly Homettes, porcelain chipmunks, plastic flamingos. The "mobile" homes rest side by side on the spongy earth, swathed in coverlets of shade, surrounded by flower beds, kitchen gardens, weeping willows. The moan of somebody's television set, tuned to "Wheel of Fortune," is all but lost in the rustling of trees.
"What do you want? Rowdy?" asks Joe Thurston, the resident manager. "I'd like it if it was noisy. But most of the time it ain't."
"He don't agree with me," says his wife Thelma, "but at our age, quiet is good."
They live in a spotless Roycraft, 10 feet wide by 45 feet long, where Thelma sits placidly at the kitchen table and Joe runs a damp cloth along the already pristine counter. When they met 30-odd years ago, she was working as a restaurant hostess at a hotel in nearby Concord. He was the hotel's maintenance man.
"I don't know, Joe was just a good person," Thelma says when asked what caught her eye. They were married and moved to the trailer park in 1954. Today they are both 81, although on wildly unequal terms. He is bright-eyed, robust, perpetually in motion. She is pained, short of breath, blind.
"We've got 43 people right now," Thelma Thurston says. "There's eight single men -- widowers -- and nine single women. Two of them have never been married, and the others are widows. And then there's 26 married people. You see, I have nothing to do, so I just lay in bed and think about all these queer things. It's something for me to do with my mind, you know?" One resident's husband and another's wife have died in the weeks since, leaving the population at 41.
"I'm gonna fool 'em all," says Joe, his smooth pink face framed by a trim white beard. "I'm going to be around forever."
"I wouldn't mind if I went tommorrow," says Thelma. Her eyes are obscured by mud-colored glasses. "I think it's nice to go to bed at night and close your eyes and never wake up again."
Her husband vigorously shakes his head.
"People don't want to go!" he shouts. "They say they do, but they don't. Everybody wants to live as long as they can. I want to be here to see what I read in a book there -- that everybody's gonna be a nudist in the year 2000."
"Oh, Joe. Come on," says his wife. "There's nothing good-looking about a nude person."
Time at Walden Breezes runs in no particular direction. It rambles, doubles back upon itself, stops here and there at a pool of warm memory. Dangling his legs from the window seat of his squat, narrow Belvedere, Henry Caswell recalls the bass fishing, the community cookouts, the crowds of thirsty tourists at Jim Sliman's refreshment stand, the men of the trailer park gathering to play cribbage or ogle the bathers at the pond.
"You don't remember when Dempsey fought Willard, do you?" asks Caswell, 92, the oldest resident. "That was a long while ago. I was down in the parking lot there with an old Model T. We didn't have a radio then. We had the crystal sets. There was no trout in the pond then. It used to be all bass."
Joe Thurston arrives with the morning mail, handing it in through the screen door. Caswell accepts it warily, muttering about his bills. When Thurston leaves, he says, "That's 'Bush.' " The nickname refers to Thurston's beard -- old news by most standards, a novel attraction at Walden Breezes. "How do you like his whiskers?"
Caswell crinkles up his face. "I tell you, you get along in years, and it raises hell with you. This place in the winter is a bastard. You have to shovel snow. That's the hell of it. Lenny used to have a couple of boys to shovel the snow. But Lenny's boys -- they've grown up now. I don't know if I'll last next winter here. I think so. I don't know yet. Maybe. I could reach 100 if I wanted to. I know damn well I could."
Before long 86-year-old Jim Swaffield, a bearlike native of Nova Scotia, shambles in without knocking and finds himself a seat. He is followed by 69-year-old Russell Bailey, a stoop-shouldered man with a moony smile. Caswell crooks an antic finger at them.
"We used to go down to the pond every year. Didn't we, Jim?" he says. "We'd go down in the fall of the year and get all the trout we wanted. I use a spinning rod but no bait. I use flies. There's some nice trout taken out down here. Fifteen-pounders. I never count 'em. I give 'em away most times."
"He's a fly man," Swaffield says.
Caswell snickers. "And he's a poor goddam fisherman, I'll tell you that. He's a terrible fisherman."
"I caught the biggest trout last year," Swaffield parries.
"You mean the one I got my foot wet netting for you?"
Bailey just smiles. What does he like about Walden Breezes?
"No one bothers you," Caswell answers. "You do what you like."
"Let him answer the question," says Swaffield.
Bailey smiles. After a long silence, Swaffield prompts, "Because nobody bothers you -- isn't that right?"
Bailey considers a while. "Yeah," he says.
Caswell says, "You should have been here when Taylor died here. When did Taylor die, last fall? Taylor was the oldest one in here."
"He was 94. Gosh!" Swaffield says. "Wilkins found him, half in bed and half out of bed. That was it. He tried to put him back in the bed, but he was dead as a doornail."
Whose trailer will be the last to go? The three men shake with laughter. The oldest laughs loudest.
"You come around next year," he says. "There'll be none of us around here. We'll be down in the hole."
The site of Thoreau's celebrated communion with nature, overlooking the big pond from a high southern bank, has all the trappings of a shrine. The cabin itself was moved and later demolished after he decamped, but the spot is marked by a pile of rocks, known as the Thoreau Cairn, and various inscribed stones. Acolytes and admirers come from far and wide to venerate these relics. The people of Walden Breezes, meanwhile, hang back and talk heresy -- a few even daring to utter the blasphemy "Lake Walden," as if it were any old body of H2O.
"I think Thoreau was a man," says one of these, Flora Haskett, "who was just trying to escape from reality for a while."
"He was an alcoholic," claims Jeanie McCormack. "He was also a great lover of women of all kinds. He was a man that liked his night life. They say he was quite a guy."
"He didn't want to pay his taxes," says Joe Thurston. "Today he'd be considered a bum. Was he really that great a writer? They make a hullabaloo about Thoreau, but I don't see them making so much noise about Emerson. Now Emerson was a writer."
"He was a bloody hippie, that's all he was," says Henry Caswell. "Emerson made him. You know that."
"Henry thinks he was a crook," says Jim Swaffield.
"That's right. He used to steal the farmers' corn. Jesus, don't you put our names in the paper, saying he wasn't a big deal. They'll bury us down in Concord."
Anne McGrath flinches at the words "Lake Walden." They grate upon her ears. "Oh, horrible, horrible," gasps the silver-haired, flinty-eyed Concordian. She's ensconced in a reading room of the Thoreau Lyceum, where she presides over the Thoreau Society.
"I grew up with Walden Breezes," she says, "and I'm delighted to think that eventually it won't be there anymore. When you realize what an intelligent, well-educated person Thoreau was, and how sensible his ideas were, it makes it all the more ridiculous to have people say these things about him. These are the kinds of things that come out of the mouths of people who never read books. And believe me," she adds, lowering her voice, "we are surrounded by them."
But wouldn't Thoreau have enjoyed living in a trailer?
"Ludicrous," she says. "Too unattractive, for one thing. When he built his house, he built it in good proportions, he built it perfectly, as if he intended to spend the rest of his life there. He was incapable of doing a sloppy job. By the way, it's not Thoreau, it's Thoreau. He made a joke about his name. He said, 'I do a thorough job.' "
Flora Haskett carefully rakes a newly vacant patch of ground. It belonged to Eva Conklin, a fragile woman of 89, who apparently toppled headlong down her back porch while feeding a stray cat. That, anyhow, was the surmise of neighbors, who found her lying beside her trailer in an attitude of finality.
"When Mrs. Conklin got to tumbling around all the time," says Haskett, "she would always call me. I don't know how any woman could fall and always be able to at least reach the cord of the telephone to pull it down onto the floor with her. This time she didn't."
Inside her Concord trailer, redecorated stem to stern after her husband died some years ago, she says, "My husband and I were riding by one day and he said, 'How would you like to live in a place like that?' I said, 'Sounds good.' " A citizen of the town later told her, "So you're one of the gypsies, then." She will have lived at Walden Breezes 26 years in August.
"I guess I'm one of the younger people here. We were all friendly when we were younger. We used to have big get-togethers out here, you know, cookouts and things . . .
"In the spring, I go dandelioning with my friend. My daughter loves 'em, provided that I dig 'em up, cook 'em and bring 'em over to her in Waltham. We bring them back from the field and wash 'em nine or 10 times, then boil 'em. They're kind of bitter but they're delicious. The season on dandelions is very short. You have to catch them before they blossom."
Thelma Thurston, taking her daily constitutional, makes her way up the front steps, holding her cane out in front of her.
"Sit down for a minute, dear," says Haskett. "Catch your breath."
The two slip comfortably into a ripple of reminiscence -- the time Henry Caswell crashed his Chevrolet into a neighbor's trailer, the time Stan Taylor saved the Jones woman from a bedroom fire. "Mr. Taylor over here went last fall," says Haskett. "Because his trailer was there for a long time before they sold it. He was the oldest one in the park at the time . . . Did Ted Holmes die before Durenbaum, or did Durenbaum die first?"
"I'm not sure who went first," says Thurston.
"Well, there wasn't very much difference."
"No. There was a very short time between them. Frances died in October, because November was the next month, and that was her birthday."
"And then Ted Holmes died afterwards, because we all had our furnaces going by then. And Mrs. Conklin, she was 89. She died here in March."
"Oh, we've had fun here," says Thurston. "I used to love it in the winter. We'd go out on weekends and shovel snow together. This, of course, was when we were younger. I loved the fall, too. Because in the fall we'd come out and rake leaves together."
"And burn them," says Haskett. "Wasn't it fun, Thelma, when we used to burn the leaves?"